Grouse on the Au Sable (1881?)

Grouse on the Au Sable: Keen Sport for the Archer with a Wise and Wary Bird

Maurice Thompson

(Published August, 1895; probably written 1881?)

We were encamped on the Au Sable in Michigan.  It was late in summer and the weather was fine.  Unusual luck with the grayling had put us into fine humor, when it became necessary to lie up for a few days waiting for a wagon which was to transport us across the country. 

Our bush tent of cedar was on a dry, sandy spot overlooking a long, nearly straight reach of the beautiful little river, which was here quite clear of drift wood and other obstructions so common to Michigan streams.  We had hauled our boats ashore and were thinking we should have nothing to do but lie around and wait, when a flock of grouse, flying across the river two hundred yards above us, changed the whole prospect. 

We had before this killed a few ruffed grouse in the mountain region of Georgia, where they are, indeed, quite rare; but we knew very well that shooting them in the Georgian rainy season, when they take to a tree at the sight of a small dog, could not be much like shooting them here, where they are as wild as deer and as watchful as hawks.  Nevertheless, what were two archers to do but go at once and try to bag some of those birds? 

Will gave me a look which spoke more enthusiastically than words.  I could see the sudden inspiration in his eyes, and I immediately pulled my bow out of its case, only to find that its string was badly frayed and needed re-whipping; moreover, it and the one on Will’s bow were the only strings left of a half dozen we had brought with us, wherefore it behooved me to give it the most careful attention. 

We noted well the point where the birds entered the woods, and as soon as my work on the string was completed we set out, eager to try our skill once more on game worthy of our attention.  For I would have you know that of all birds, the wild turkey excepted, the ruffed grouse is the cleverest in every ruse for avoiding the sportsman; moreover, it is one of the most beautiful as well as most coveted prizes ever brought to bag. 

You have no doubt often observed that the stories told by anglers and shooters are mostly about successful experiences and happy turns of luck in their sport; but you have no right to grumble at this, for you know very well that unsuccessful and unfortunate incidents are not particularly interesting.  We all like to tell the good parts of our stories.  This is why I am now writing.  Let my failures take care of themselves; I do not care to be bothered with them. 

It was to a hawk that we were that day indebted for an hour of most exciting archery.  We made our way on a bee-line to where we had seen the flock drop down into a clump of cedar trees and just as we were nearing it there was a great commotion and the birds scattered and chirruped keenly.  I saw some of them fly close to the ground; others rose into the thick cedar boughs. 

Will clutched me by the arm.  “A hawk,” he added, “it’s got one.  Look!”  He pointed with his bow, and I quickly caught sight of a great brown hawk, sure enough, heavily winging along under the trees and bearing in its claws a fluttering grouse. 

My first impulse was to pursue and, if possible, kill the successful marauder, but Will held me back.  He was reckoning upon a better exploit. 

“Now’s our time,” he eagerly whispered.  “They are frightened, and have hidden themselves.  They’ll lie close.  If we’re careful we can get a lot of ‘em.  Keep perfectly cool.” 

There spoke the knowing sportsman and naturalist.  Knowledge is power, if you can but convert it into wisdom.  The close observer who has a good memory and a ready wit is always armed with the expedient which exactly meets the emergency. 

Will had learned by observation that when a hawk strikes into the midst of a covey of quails or a flock of grouse, the birds will instantly scatter, each individual looking out for a hiding place, and dashing precipitately into the first cover that offers.  In the present case, most of the grouse were birds not yet fully grown, being a pair and its late spring or early summer brood, and this we knew was much in our favor; for young birds are less sophisticated than old ones, and naturally depend more upon hiding than flying when sudden danger arrives. 

The hawk, with its toothsome quarry, was soon away out of sight and strange silence and stillness fell upon the wood, a moment ago so noisy and full of twinkling wings.  You could have heard a pin drop.  Not even a cedar spray stirred.  Every one of the grouse was in a quickly chosen hiding place. If you had been passing that way and unaware of what had just happened, you would never had dreamed that all around you within easy bowshot were fine, fat birds, some of them in plain view, if you but knew where to look for them. 

Well, it chanced that Will and I did know very well just where to look for the two frightened grouse.  We knew their nature and habits and just what they might be expected to do under circumstances like the present.  But this very knowledge made us feel how slender was the probability of success for us.  A single misstep would end the whole affair in a great whir of wings.  Almost infinite caution and address were demanded.  We stood still for some moments holding a hurried consultation under breath, and agreed to keep close together.  Then we began moving slowly about, all eyes looking above, below, around.  Each had an arrow set in his bow, and was using the faculty of discrimination with intensest effort of vision.  It requires this to see a grouse under such conditions. 

What is the secret of the trick no hunter pr naturalist has yet been able to explain.  But one of these birds can sit on a bough in plain sight, without even so much as a twig between it and your eyes, and yet you do not see it, although looking straight at it. 

I remember that we walked around in that cedar grove, gazing fruitlessly into every tuft, wisp and spray.  We knew very well that as many as a dozen birds were there, but not a feather could we see.  In such a case, when you do chance to discover a bird it is a revelation so unexpected and sudden that that you are apt to be quite surprised.  Imagine my start and recoil, as if a panther or a rattlesnake had leaped up under my nose, when on a cedar bough not ten feet away I saw a young cock grouse sitting motionless in a perfectly open space.  I am sure that I had looked along the identical bough from end to end, time and again before the apparition of the bird, which seemed all at once to materialize out of nothingness. 

It would have been next to impossible for one to miss when so close to my game.  I bowled it over with a blunt arrow.  Will’s vision was unlocked a little later, and now we could see grouse almost everywhere.  Most of them were perched low in the trees, but here and there one had squatted on a log.  None of them took to wing until we had shot a good many times.  I let go five arrows, one after the other, at a bird which lay close in between two roots at the foot of a tree before I killed it.  The blunt shaft heads rapped hammer-like on the hard gnarls of wood close to the crouching form, but it did not so much as move its head or stir a wing feather.  Will was shooting as fast as he could draw and loose, and when at last one of the old birds leaped into the air and went noisily away, the remainder of the flock followed with a roar, and our sport was at an end. 

We picked up five dead birds as our quarry, but Will insisted that one more ought to be in his bag.  It was his second bird, and he had knocked it off a log at the edge of a thicket.  We ranged the spot over and over, and finally, just as we were out of all patience, there it lay, flat on its back, in the open, with nothing at all to hide it.  So we had in all six fine young grouse, a memorable bag, and went back to our tent two very happy archers!